Parents want closed-campus lunch at high school

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, February 19, 2014
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Three parents who spoke at Monday’s Decatur School Board meeting want the district to change its open-campus lunch policy at the high school.

Closing Time

CLOSING TIME? – Decatur High School students leave for lunch Tuesday. A group of parents asked school board members Monday to consider closing the campus for lunch, citing concerns about student safety. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

All three parents, who are also district-level directors with the school, urged the board to change to a closed-campus lunch beginning with next year’s freshmen. They suggested current high school students be allowed to leave campus at lunch.

Meradith Culpepper has two children in the district, including one who will enter high school next year. She said her main concern was the safety of the students. She pointed out that the district has numerous safety and security practices in place – such as a computer system that can scan a driver’s license to show if someone is allowed on a campus, school resource officers, employees trained in health and safety procedures and AEDs located throughout the district.

Those safety measures can’t help a student when he or she is off campus.

“Every day at lunchtime we allow literally hundreds of inexperienced drivers to speed through town or rush onto major highways to quickly eat lunch or perhaps do what you cannot do on campus in time to get back in their seat for their next class, all within a 45-minute time frame,” she said.

Culpepper described how she was at the high school last year when a student who had returned to campus after lunch used his vehicle to ram another vehicle in the parking lot. She said that incident and others are the reason many people will avoid being anywhere near the high school during lunch period.

So far, no serious injuries have resulted from a lunchtime wreck, but Culpepper said other schools have had to deal with more tragic outcomes.

“When doing research on a few districts who had open-campus lunch, it saddened me to read of all of the student deaths that occurred during campus lunch periods,” she said. “I ask you, do you want to be the board faced with the decision these boards faced following such tragedies?

“Please do not let a tragic event be the reason you close the campus. Do the right thing, and keep it from happening.”

Troy Bagwell said Decatur High School’s open-campus tradition is one that in a few years “will not be missed.”

He said he takes full responsibility for his children’s behavior and trusts administrators and teachers with his children while they are at school. But like Culpepper, he is concerned that a large number of students have no oversight during the lunch period.

“I have personally witnessed several disturbing actions by students as they are leaving DHS for lunch,” he said. “Last Monday, the day with the freezing drizzle, I was driving to the high school on Summit Drive as students were leaving for lunch. One truck was barreling down the street with all the other cars, and a kid was hanging out the passenger door, sitting on the window sill scraping the ice and just laughing all the way down the hill. There were many things wrong with that picture.”

At other times, Bagwell said students have made obscene gestures or nearly hit him while trying to rush back to the school.

Shelley Laaser spoke as the parent of two students in the district, including one who will be in high school next year. As a registered dietitian and the district’s director of child nutrition, she offered another concern in addition to student safety.

“I had a concern regarding the healthiness of our children and the food they are eating at fast-food restaurants or, just as bothersome, those who are not eating,” Laaser said. “You must take into consideration that about half of our district’s population is on free or reduced meal benefits.”

Laaser said she called the Region 11 Education Service Center to see how many other 3A school districts in the 10-county region offer off-campus lunch. She found that only one other school allowed students to leave campus to eat lunch: Kennedale. When she called the child nutrition director at Kennedale, Laaser said she was told that their school board had just decided to close the campus beginning next school year.

“While the lunch closure was first introduced due to curriculum concerns, (Kennedale) later investigated the financial impact it would have on the district and revealed that a projected revenue increase of over $150,000 would flow through their particular child nutrition program,” she said. “The profits from that program had to be reinvested in their federal child nutrition program. For many districts, that means adding serving lines, serving higher quality food and other improvements.”

Laaser said that if the board decided to close the campus at lunch, leading to a higher volume of students eating in the cafeteria, she would be committed to making it a success.

“I can tell you that feeding our students in the space that we have, in a reasonable time frame, is most certainly feasible,” she said.

Because the item was not listed on Monday’s agenda, the school board could not discuss or take action on the request at this time.

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